Episode II of the Avs midseason report cards. Yesterday I looked at goalies. Today, I'm talking about the defensemen.
At this point last season, the defense was finally coming together after a rough first half. The Avs had a bunch of new faces - Brett Clark, Ossi Vaananen and Patrice Brisebois - and the lack of cohesion had resulted in some ugly defensive hockey early on. But by the time 2006 rolled around, the unit was beginning to gel, and the team enjoyed a nice run in January that was probably what got them into the playoffs.
This year, there's just one main change - Rob Blake is gone, replaced mostly by Ken Klee. New acquisition Jordan Leopold has played in just five games. Kurt Sauer (6 GP) and Kyle Cumiskey (1 GP) have also been in the mix, but, for the most part, 5 of the 6 main defensemen are holdovers from last year.
How are they doing as a unit? Scoring is down: last year, the Avalanche ranked first in the league in goals by defensemen (52) and fourth in points (204). This year, they are on pace for 36 goals and 162 points, a 20% and 31% drop respectively. Obviously, losing Rob Blake is a huge factor here, although a couple players (Brisebois and Skrastins) are both well off their 2006-07 pace. However, the drop in scoring has coincided with better defensive numbers. Colorado is on pace to allow about 20 less goals this season, and have cut down shots against by about 2%. For the season, Avs defensemen were a +21 last year and are sitting at +26 through 39 games. So, while the scoring is down, the team has improved in their own end...and that's a good trade off. One big deficiency: other than Liles, the Avs lack PP scoring from their defensemen - just Liles, Clark and Brisebois have PP points. Ken Klee, who averages 1:20 a game on the PP, has no points. Joe Sakic can't keep playing the point forever...
With Blake's production gone, Liles has been the go-to offensive guy and he's responded with an excellent season. Liles' 10 goals (5 PP, 5 EV) eclipses the 7 the rest of the Avs defensemen have put up. He's on pace to reach 21 goals and 59 points, both well above his career highs. He has a whopping 61% of the PP points from Avs defensemen. He passes well, picks smart times to pinch, and has a deceptively strong shot. JML has improved his consistency: over the last 20 games, he's only been held scoreless in consecutive games once. His defensive game has improved as well. I'm also impressed with his toughness - he's gone to the dressing room a couple of times times this year and last after taking a hard hit, but he hasn't missed a game the last two seasons, and just missed 3 games in his NHL career. Grade: A
Clark was an incredible story last season; a career AHL / 7th defenseman plays well in camp, makes the team, and by the end of the season he's put up 39 points and is routinely facing the opposing teams' best lines. He got a healthy raise in the offseason, but any fear that he'd slip back into mediocrity this year have been put to rest. Clark averages 23:33 per game, tops on the Avs by almost 3 minutes. He plays on both the PK (3:58 per game) and PP (4:06) and leads Colorado defensemen with 15 EV points. He, along with Skrastins, routinely plays against the best lines, yet is +7, second among the defensemen. Like most of the Avalanche, Clark isn't much of a physical presence, but is an excellent shot blocker (13th in the league) and moves the puck with confidence in his own zone. Statistically, Clark is the best of the 4 main PKers (Clark, Brisebois, Skrastins and Klee). His work on the powerplay has been just okay - he's struggled at times to keep the puck in at the blueline and seems to be better at passing vertically rather than across the ice - which is the only significant knock to his game this year to my eyes. Grade: B+
I'll be the first to admit that I expected Klee to have almost no value to us, other than as an occasional fill in. But here we are in early January and Klee is averaging 20 minutes a game and leading the team with a +14 rating. Klee plays on both the PK and PP (not so hot at the latter - 0 points in over 50 minutes of ice time) and has 11 EV points (3rd on the team). Klee has, at times, been prone to some bad penalties and defensive lapses. With Leopold out, Klee has had to spend more time on special teams than normal, and that's exposed his weaknesses a bit. But, overall, Klee has had a good first half. Bonus points for filling in passably at forward in 3 games. Grade: B
It can be tough to evaluate Patrice's game. He has always been a lightning rod of (mostly negative) opinion - some fair, some not. Brisebois is inconsistent in his own zone - his mental lapses are rather amazing for a guy with over 900 NHL games under his belt. When he's not blindly making passes to the other team, or throwing clearing attempts that stop 10 feet short of the blueline, or passing to players in the middle of a line change, he's actually rather good in his own end. He positions well and is surprisingly physical for a guy with a nickname of "pylon". And, statistically, he's the 2nd best penalty killer among Avs defensemen, by a pretty decent margin. For every stupid play, he'll make 9 good ones, but that stupid one is often so costly, it's tough to remember the good stuff. Even worse, his offensive game has seemingly disappeared; he's on pace for just 25 points, 13 points less than last year. When you are putting up a bunch of points, it's possible to ignore miscues. 25 points is not quite "a bunch", which is likely why Brisebois was the first Avs defender scratched when Leopold had his short stint in the active lineup. Of the top 6 defensemen, Brisebois has contributed the least. Grade: D+
While I was worried Clark might slip a bit after cashing in during the offseason, it's actually his partner, Skrastins, who seems to be riding his own coattails a bit. Skrastins is a great shot blocker (6th in the league) and has had success going to the ice and either poking the puck away or blocking a crossing pass. Unfortunately, it seems the rest of the league has caught up to those tactics a bit and have adjusted accordingly. Instead of making a great play, Skrastins has been guilty of taking himself out of position, opening up chances for the other team. He would probably benefit greatly by a wakeup call in the form of a healthy scratch, but his ironman streak makes that almost impossible. At the least, I think he'd do well to play away from Clark - perhaps a new partner would force him to think more about his play, instead of relying on some bad habits. Skrastins has not been bad this year, but he certainly hasn't played up to his normal abilities. He has virtually no offensive ability...but that's nothing new. Grade: B-
Ken Klee has been surprising, but not the most surprising. That, of course, is Ossi Vaananen. I disliked pretty much everything about Ossi's game last year - his skating, his passing, his fumbling of the puck, his propensity for taking stupid penalties...let's stop there and just call it a long list. Vaananen has improved in all of those areas on his way to a solid first half. At just 13:30 ATOI, he doesn't have the ice time of the other 5, mostly because he doesn't get any time on the PP or the PK. But even strength, he's been a reliable defensive force and has increased his ice time as the season has worn on. Colorado has an abundance of defensemen, and it wouldn't surprise me to see Ossi traded at the deadline for some offensive help. Six months ago, that thought would have had me jumping for joy. Now, I'd be sorry to see him go. I do think he could better in the offensive zone, and could up the hitting even more than he has, but his defensive play has generally been strong enough to earn him a solid grade. Grade: B-
Three other defensemen have played too sparingly to get anything other than an Incomplete. Kurt Sauer, perennial healthy scratch, has managed to escape Quenneville's dog house to appear in 6 games this season. That's nothing new to Kurt - he's been a healthy scratch in 73 of the last 116 regular season games. Sauer is prone to the occasional turnover, which is probably why he gets to wear a suit during games so often. But his mistakes are minimal compared to those of, say, Brisebois or even Klee. He's the biggest defenseman the Avs have, although, like Vaananen, he doesn't use that size quite as much as he needs to. In my opinion, Sauer is good enough to be a top 6 defenseman for a number of NHL clubs...including this one.
5 games isn't enough to evaluate Jordan Leopold. I don't know that he's going to be much of a boon to our biggest need - the powerplay - but, hey, as long as he can score at all he'll be an improvement over Klee and Briesbois in that department.
One guy who looks like he'll be helping us on the powerplay in the future is Kyle Cumiskey. Cumiskey has just played one NHL game, but seemed to know what to do with the puck. Barring trades or injuries, we probably won't see #48 too much this season, but he strikes me as another player to look forward to in the future.
*this article originally appeared at inthecheapseats.com*